To celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows Sept. 15, we look at how Our Sorrowful Mother shows us how to benefit from life's unavoidable pain.
By Stephen LaChance
Michelangelo has carved into his Pieta an element as profound as it is subtle. Off to one side, almost hidden behind the lifeless body of Christ, Mary's left hand lies open in a sign of surrender to God. This gesture symbolizes her entire life.
In the Scriptures, starting with the words of her fiat, "Be it done unto me according to your word," (Lk 1:38) to her patient waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1), we see Mary living in complete acceptance of the will of God.
Tradition has developed this surrender as epitomized in seven of Mary's sorrows: the prophesy of Simeon (Lk 2:34); the exile in Egypt (Mt 2:13); the loss of Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41); the way of the cross; the Crucifixion (Jn 19:25); the descent from the Cross (Jn 19:38); the burial of Jesus (Jn 19:42).
The Way to Peace
More than saying that Mary surrendered despite these great sufferings, we should say that she surrendered because of them. For she knew and she wants to teach us that uncomplaining surrender is the only way to peace. This is the great lesson of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In the first sorrow, when the prophet Simeon foretells the pain which is destined to the infant Jesus — as well as the sword that would pierce Mary's own soul — she does not complain but opens her heart to meditate on God's will (Lk 2:34-35).
The Sorrowful Mother reacts similarly during the loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple. The horror of losing Him is just one aspect of this sorrow. She is also perplexed by the reason Jesus gives for having stayed in the Temple, "I must be about My Father's business."
Again, Mary accepts God's will in the darkness of faith, for she will fully understand her Son's words only at the cross and the tomb. Instead of turning from God's unsearchable judgments, the Bible says, "She kept all these things in her heart" (Lk 2:51).
No One is Spared from Sorrow
Key to Mary's sorrows is the realization that God does not spare us from pain. Our pain, however, can co-exist with God's peace. To succeed in this we must learn from Our Lady of Sorrows how to open our hearts to God's will. If we close our hearts to His will and cling to our own understanding, we carry not only the original pain, but we also lack the peace of surrender.
This tends to lead to anger, self-pity, and despair. In The Mystery of Human Suffering, Pope John Paul II wrote that suffering can even lead people to deny the existence of God.
Sister Emmanuel, the French author and speaker, has said that this is the greatest area that the devil manipulates. At every pain, she says, Satan feigns compassion and harasses the soul with thoughts such as, "Poor you, you don't deserve this, you are being treated unjustly. There must be no God."
Following Facts Not Feelings
In order to accept the mystery of suffering, we must determine to live by faith. We must not be swayed by our feelings. The fact of God's all-powerful goodness must be our foundation.
The more time we spend with Our Lady of Sorrows, the more we will learn this, and the more our lives will be ruled by peace and trust in God's will, which is love and mercy itself.
To this end, Mary has requested at Fatima that we spend 15 minutes each First Saturday praying with her, to console her Immaculate Heart. Like Elizabeth, we can only exclaim: "How is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:44). Such is the generosity of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In an excellent book on the Sorrows of Mary, The Way of Compassion, Fr. Richard Antall expresses it well: "The best consolers are those who have been through pain and suffering themselves. In the case of prayer to Mary the Sorrowful One, I think that the dynamic goes even further. It is a question of mutual consolation."
Yet there can be no doubt that we benefit far more from this exchange. Our love and understanding of God is strengthened, and we can experience peace in Mary's loving care.
Benefiting from Pain
Besides these personal reasons to emulate Mary's surrender, there is an even greater reason to follow her example. We have all heard it millions of times and yet not enough: We can "offer it up" as penance for our sins and the salvation of others
We can, as St. Paul says, "fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (Col 1:24). By uniting our pains with the infinite sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, our suffering becomes truly redemptive.
Mary's cooperation in this redemption is unequaled for two reasons. First, her immaculate love enabled her to suffer more than any other human. Second, since she was redeemed in a unique fashion, she didn't need to do penance for personal sins. Standing by the cross of her Son, she offers all these pains for our benefit.
Standing with her, we see the solution to the problem of evil. We look at the all-powerful, all-good God and see Him suffer and die, in the Person of Christ.
Triumph of the Holy Cross
This seeming contradiction has led the Church to celebrate a feast called the Triumph of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14). This triumph is the paradox of the cross, which St. Paul calls "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23).
This feast is celebrated the day before the Sorrows of Mary. It makes sense that these two feasts are so connected, but it is surprising that the Triumph comes before the Sorrows. Where else in the world does triumph come before sorrow, or when does victory come before the battle?
Yet the inspired wisdom of the Church does not fail us in this regard. For it is only in light of the Triumph of the Cross that the Sorrows of Mary and our sorrows have any meaning.
Do Not Suffer in Vain
The words of Pope John Paul II, in his address at Lourdes on July 22, 1979, fill us with an awesome hope. They encourage us to see the value of suffering and the consolation of Mary, Our Sorrowful Mother:
You have not suffered or do not suffer in vain. Pain matures you in spirit, purifies you in heart ... . Succeed, therefore, in giving a Christian value to your suffering. I want you to know that you are not alone, or separated, or abandoned in your Via Crucis; beside you, each one of you, is the Blessed Virgin, who considers you her most beloved children.
The late Stephen LaChance was a former editorial staff member of the Association of Marian Helpers.